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Missouri ranked #1 for Black homicide victimization

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Black Americans made up 14% of the U.S. population but accounted for more than half of all homicide victims in 2019, the most recent year with available data from the FBI. And Missouri stands out as the state with the highest number of Black people killed in homicides per capita. That is according to the latest annual study by the Violence Policy Center. Josh Sugarmann is the group's executive director and joins me now. Thanks for being here.

JOSH SUGARMANN: Thank you for having me on.

SUMMERS: So, Josh, this is the sixth year in a row that your organization found Missouri to have the highest rate of Black homicide victims. And the state saw that rate jump 45% between 2014 and 2019. Any indication as to what is behind that stark increase?

SUGARMANN: The only thing that we can look at is the data we receive from the FBI. And so we've seen probably the most striking factor is involvement of guns in Black homicide victimization. In Missouri, 95% of Black homicide victims were killed with a gun. So across the board, we find in this study - it's not just in Missouri, but across the country - the role played by firearms. But in certainly Missouri, it's striking.

SUMMERS: I grew up in that state, and I have to wonder, when you look at Missouri and other states, how much of this is about accessibility of guns by purchasers, how easy it is to obtain a gun in certain states?

SUGARMANN: When you look at Missouri, the state has virtually no standards beyond the federal standards for gun sale and possession. And that is not unique among some of the states that we've looked at in the study that rank in the top 10. What's just as important is the fact that in Missouri, communities and jurisdictions that want to address this problem on a local level - say, for example, Kansas City, St. Louis - they can't do so 'cause of what's known as a statewide firearms preemption, which means that no jurisdiction can pass a gun law tougher than the state standards.

SUMMERS: You know, we should point out here that your group advocates for gun control, and you're highlighting access to firearms as a problem here. What do you think it's going to take to effect any sort of lasting change in a state like Missouri with the type of legal landscape that you're discussing here?

SUGARMANN: I think in Missouri, it depends upon, first of all, the ongoing activities of grassroots advocates, community members and other stakeholders to make sure their voices are heard, which they are. They work very hard every day at this, you know, preventing this type of violence. But on top of that, that the policymakers have to recognize that the state is in a crisis. When you look at the numbers compared not just to the national levels but to other states, it's just shocking. And so there's an understanding that there's a crisis that needs to be addressed, but it hasn't reached the state policymaker level yet.

SUMMERS: Missouri is also home to one of the highest profile killings that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement. That is the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which is near St. Louis. What do you say to Black communities that feel that they cannot trust law enforcement and to those who may feel safer having a gun as a result?

SUGARMANN: While that reaction can be understandable, the fact is that regardless of a person's race or ethnicity or sex, guns are rarely used in self-defense, whether in justifiable homicides or in non-fatal prevention. And an unfortunate reality is that in the past two years, the gun industry has focused on marketing to communities of color, Black Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, in the context of COVID and episodes like you describe.

SUMMERS: The study is based on data from the year 2019, which is the most recent year from which data is available. What do you expect data from 2020 and 2021 to look like, particularly given that those two years track with the COVID pandemic?

SUGARMANN: It's hard to say what the trends will reveal, but unfortunately, you know, we just know what other agencies have reported, the trends being reported. But we will not be surprised, obviously, if these numbers do go up.

SUMMERS: Josh Sugarmann is the executive director of the Violence Policy Center. Thank you so much for your time.

SUGARMANN: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Taylor Hutchison
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.